restricted access Three Ways of Looking at Victorian Fantasies
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Three Ways of Looking at Victorian Fantasies
An Expression of Character: The Letters of George MacDonald, ed. Glenn Edward Sadler. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994.
The Literary Products of the Lewis Carroll-George MacDonald Friendship, by John Docherty. Lewiston, N.Y.: Meilen, 1995.
Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J. M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A. A. Milne, by Jackie Wullschlèger. New York: Free, 1995.

These three books cover the same general subject: the life and literary works of major Victorian fantasy writers for children. Since Sadler, Docherty, and Wullschlèger use different critical approaches to their topic, it is fascinating to realize how little these books as a group have in common with one another. The George MacDonald who emerges from Sadler's massive collection of letters barely resembles the George MacDonald whom Docherty shows to be a writer involved in an intense and extended literary wrestling match with Lewis Carroll. Only one single letter to Carroll appears in Sadler's volume, a brief response to Carroll's request for an introduction to Noel Paton, whom Carroll was considering as a possible illustrator for Looking-Glass. The Lewis Carroll who provides the title for Wullschlèger's group biography of five pivotal Victorian and Edwardian fantasy writers is not the same Carroll who Docherty claims was involved in a long-standing literary and religious debate with MacDonald that, he suggests, resulted in their children's books being filled with reciprocating allusions. MacDonald is excluded from Wullschlèger's master list of fantasy writers and barely makes a mention in her book.

Sadler's An Expression of Character is a much-needed collection of letters of George MacDonald, perhaps best known by children's literature scholars for At the Back of the North Wind, The Princess and the Goblin, and The Princess and Curdie, as well as his many visionary fairy tales. Sadler has also edited the outstanding two-volume The Gifts of the Child [End Page 205] Christ: Fairy Tales and Stories for the Childlike(Eerdmans, 1973), which is the standard edition for MacDonald's fairy tales. An Expression of Character will undoubtedly find an important and useful place next to The Gifts of the Child Christ and William Raeper's George MacDonald (Lion, 1987) as essential scholarly texts for anyone wishing to do serious critical work on MacDonald. Sadler has chronologically arranged more than three hundred letters divided into six major periods of MacDonald's life. Sadler provides necessary annotations to the correspondence, an accurate register of the letters, and an index to the people and places mentioned in the collection. Although not as extensive or detailed in its scholarly notes as Morton Cohen's two-volume The Letters of Lewis Carroll (Oxford, 1979), An Expression of Character is a treasure trove for those interested in MacDonald's religious beliefs.

There is one great limitation to this volume, however, although the fault lies not with Sadler but with MacDonald. MacDonald's withdrawal into total silence during the final years of his life is well known, as is the complexity of his highly mystical and mythopoetic prose. Any reader hoping to find the "golden key" to unlock the mysteries of his intricate fantasies will be sorely disappointed. In one letter to a cousin, MacDonald explains, "A man whose business is writing is seldom fond of letters" (328). Although MacDonald dutifully wrote hundreds of letters, they are surprisingly flat and impersonal when compared to his emotionally and erotically charged fiction. The only two letters that equal MacDonald's published work are a touching letter to John Ruskin written four days after the death of Rose La Touche and a guiltily penned note to Thomas Carlyle begging him to duplicate a letter written to a mutual friend that MacDonald had inadvertently misplaced. MacDonald avoids analysis of his work in the letters; as he wrote to A. P. Watt, his literary agent, "I will do nothing to bring my personality before the public in any way farther than my work in itself necessitates" (355).

Occasionally there is a brief reference to his own work, such as the letter to his wife in which...